Julian Katz Integrated Executive Producer, BBDO

TRUST caught up with BBDO‘s Julian Katz to talk about drawing, breaking the mold, and similarities between toddlers and directors.

You studied illustration at RISD before landing a creative position with Saatchi & Saatchi, but you very quickly transitioned from that into your first producing role. What initially appealed to you about that side of the business? Have you considered moving back into art directing or creative directing?

Well, between my last two years in school I was an intern in the creative department at Saatchi, mostly helping art directors find scrap and assemble comps for print ads before many art directors were using their computers for that – back then we used color copiers, X-Acto knives and lots of spray mount. It felt like something I might have done in a Freshman Foundation class at RISD. It was fun, but I never expected to make a career out of advertising. After graduation, I was back home in San Francisco assembling my illustration portfolio and trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, and I started picking up some freelance work making an awesome hourly rate while doing the same thing I was doing in my internship, at first for Saatchi and then following the creative directors I had been working with there after they split off and founded their own agency, Ingalls Moranville.

I was still sort of passing time and enjoying making a freelance wage there when they decided they couldn’t keep me on as a freelancer any longer and wanted to offer me an entry-level staff position, which I had never really thought about. I still did not view this as my career at all. I knew I didn’t want to be in account management or media. I knew I was not a writer. And despite my fine arts background I knew I was not an art director; I did not have an aptitude for the layout and design aspects of art direction, I just didn’t see myself in that role. So I thought that was going to be the end of my time in advertising. But Rob Ingalls and David Moranville thought I would make a good producer, and I was willing to give it a shot even though I had no idea what a producer did and had never encountered one.

I was thrown right into it. The production department consisted only of myself and an executive producer who had come from the production side, he had never worked at an agency before. So I was working on talent contracts and negotiating music licenses and working on radio spots and even small TV spots on my own after a very short time in production.

I always told myself I would keep doing it as long as it was challenging and creatively fulfilling and interesting and I was happy doing it. After a couple of years I got laid off from Ingalls Moranville and thought that might be the end of my brief stint in advertising, but then a friend recommended me for an open position at Citron Haligman Bedecarré and soon I started bouncing my way to bigger and better agencies producing bigger and better work, and continuing to enjoy myself in this business. And then years later when I was at BBH, I got a chance to produce a TV series for AXE on MTV, and then a few really challenging non-traditional pieces (events, documentary films, etc.), and just when my enthusiasm for producing TV commercials was starting to wane, I discovered a whole new world of creative, challenging, fulfilling non traditional work which reinvigorated me and ultimately led to my current role at BBDO, focusing on just those types of projects.

Some work does not need to have particularly interesting or even tasteful visuals; it’s all about evaluating the work at hand and helping to shape the best possible way forward for it. Finding the right partners to help execute it. Defending the vision against too much compromise. Death by a thousand cuts…

From an art direction and design standpoint, who are some creatives working today whose work you find particularly inspiring? What do you look for when evaluating a campaign’s visuals?

I have worked with a lot of really inspiring art directors and designers over the years. Thomas Hayo comes to mind; he and William Gelner are two of the best creative directors I have ever worked with, and I was fortunate to work with both of them during BBH New York’s peak years. Danilo Boer is a young rising star designer at BBDO, I have never worked with anyone who is as fast and self-sufficient and talented as he is. Ralph Watson is great. Hal Wolverton and Alicia Johnson are amazing designers and visual thinkers, and they have their whole own approach to putting a campaign together which I have never experienced before. There are so many good ones out there.

I don’t feel like my role is to evaluate a campaign’s visuals; it’s to put together the best execution of a particular concept, to help define and then shepherd the creative vision for a piece through development, production, and post. Some work does not need to have particularly interesting or even tasteful visuals; it’s all about evaluating the work at hand and helping to shape the best possible way forward for it. Finding the right partners to help execute it. Defending the vision against too much compromise. Death by a thousand cuts…

From your experience working on non-traditional projects, what have you found to be some of the most compelling ways in which agencies are breaking the mold?

I think anything an agency does to engage with consumers in a more substantial way is compelling. Whether it’s creating an immersive entertainment experience like “Daybreak” or building a web platform like Domino’s Pizza Tracker or even producing an epic, entertaining ad like Nike “Write the Future” or Call of Duty “The Vet & The n00b” which people are likely to enjoy and share with one another, that is a worthy endeavor which the client gets a lot of value out of.

I have enjoyed working on TV spots over the years, but does anyone actually watch most spots anymore, if they can help it? Do spots still work, as passive viewing? I think brands need to engage with their audience in different ways, and whatever agencies are doing to that end in original ways is compelling and laudable. We can’t take the captive audience for granted any longer, we need to give them a reason to engage with what we are creating.

How would you describe the art you make (or have made) outside of the office? Do you still find time to work on personal art projects in your spare time?

I ended up gravitating towards Illustration at RISD because of my lifelong love of drawing. In school, I was preparing to be a freelance editorial illustrator, aspiring to do spot or cover pieces for publications like The New Yorker or Vanity Fair or Rolling Stone. But I found after school that it was really hard for me to self-motivate; I was so used to fulfilling assignments, I found it difficult to start my own pieces or just draw for the simple love of it any longer.

I have done very little illustration since my career in advertising really got started: a few pieces for friends’ book proposals, some spot illustrations for a community newspaper a friend was editing, but not much else. I also used to play bass in a band in SF but that fell by the wayside as my career heated up. Part of the deal I made with myself in walking away from these creative pursuits was that my work had to be creatively fulfilling or it wasn’t worth the sacrifice, and that has motivated me to flex different muscles in seeking out different types of projects outside of my comfort zone over the years. I’m happy to say that I do find my work to be fulfilling. I probably miss playing music more than I miss making illustrations.

You have a toddler entering into the dreaded terrible-twos. How has that experience been treating you? Any fun anecdotes to share?

We have two daughters now, one just under two and a new one who is only 10 weeks old. They grow and change so fast, and our older daughter is such a little kid with her own strong sweet hilarious personality, it was kind of a shock to enter back into the helpless infant stage. The lack of sleep, the total need and constant dirty diapers and spit up – just dealing with the endless flow of bodily fluids coming out of all ends at all times. It’s kind of like working with certain directors I know…

I kid! Fatherhood is so fun and challenging. It comes really naturally, it changes your worldview and your priorities in permanent ways, and it is the best thing ever. Having kids is our entire purpose as human beings, to perpetuate the species, and my brain is constantly rewarding me for doing it even while my body is feeling beaten up and exhausted from it.